In late May, SpaceX and NASA pulled off a historic achievement: the first commercial launch of a manned mission into space. In humanity’s quest to become a space-faring civilization, commercialization of space travel could prove an important milestone, as it opens up the space industry to any individual that is willing to try. Or so it should be. The unfortunate reality is that many that are willing to try never end up getting a chance to even entertain their dreams, let alone act on them.
A fallacy and a correlation
Over the past few decades, the world has witnessed change at an unprecedented pace. The forces of science, technology and globalization have transformed our societies and nations beyond recognition. For those that were born early enough to have witnessed this change first hand, it is all too easy to fall into the illusion that we have also made commensurate progress on other fronts. This is a fallacy. Racial justice, gender equality, religious freedom and human rights are far from reality for far too many of us. The pervasiveness of smartphones and social media has certainly given a voice to everyone irrespective of their race, religion or gender, but that in itself has not solved any real problem. Our social life — both on and off of social media — continues to be influenced by the same old prejudices and stereotypes.
It turns out that the values of equality of all are not the only thing that we have been slow to adopt. A common theme underlying racism, religious bigotry and patriarchy is a denial of Science itself; or perhaps to be more precise, a selective acceptance of it. From Nazis who used faulty “science” to spread lies of racial superiority to today’s anti-vaxxers and believers of cow urine’s healing properties, it is hard to ignore the correlation between the lack of scientific temperament and intolerance. As Prof. Balakrishnan (“Balki”) puts it eloquently in a talk titled ‘Thaumaturgy in the Age of Science’:
“In the last 60 years or so, science and technology have advanced at a pace that has far outstripped the ability of the population at large to keep up with it, at a psychological and sociological level. In other words, there has not been a significantly commensurate sociological and societal enlightenment; at least not one that is deep enough, profound enough or permanent enough.”
This correlation has had tangible consequences to the world that we live in today, to say the least. The United States is a prime example of this phenomenon. As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the political leadership has done far from enough to help contain the virus. Politics in Congress seems to be getting in the way of common-sense measures, and bold action proposed by the sensible few is seemingly far from encouraged as the eventual relief policy passed leaves no side happy. The executive branch, on the other hand, has not only ignored early intelligence on the virus, but has also downplayed the severity of the crisis and has actively encouraged an anti-scientific trend of not wearing masks and gathering in large numbers. There is no question that the pandemic has had immense impact on the economy. But instead of making an attempt to financially rescue those that are worst hit, the crisis has been used to enrich the already rich. This has led to a downward spiral where the poor — consisting in large part of communities of color — are forced to find employment and go to work so that they can put food on the table, thereby leading to a further increase in the number of virus infections. In an attempt to feed their children, communities of color have become fodder for the virus. This heart-wrenching reality is far from a coincidence. Every bit of this crisis is the result of a system that has been used to serve the few as opposed to all.
The situation is not too different in my own home country — India. The pandemic has hit low-income workers and the historically oppressed communities the worst. As daily-wage laborers continue to struggle to make ends meet in the middle of a pandemic thanks to government inaction, there are those that have attempted to enrich themselves through claims of miracle cures. After millions across the country donated to a supposed relief fund, they realized that the spendings of it are not going to be made public. There is no guarantee that money is being used to either help out the worst hit or fund scientific research on the virus. For those of us that have engaged in critical analysis of the decisions and policies of this government leading up to this point, it is hard to give them the benefit of the doubt now.
Don’t blame the virus
The concurrence between the lack of scientific temperament and social injustice and inequality is a theme far from unique to this pandemic. Even as many key indicators have shown that humanity is more at peace, more just and more prosperous now than ever before, a troubling number of people continue to suffer injustice every single day. On the one hand, economic inequality has been growing, only worsened by racial and religious intolerance. On the other, the voices of those that dissent and of the historically oppressed have lately come under under increasing threat. Criticizing protests against injustice has become fashionable in some corners, while the same critics are often the first to play victim at the smallest of inconveniences to their already privileged lives. Those that are nonchalant in the face of killings of Black Americans or Dalit/Muslim Indians are often the first to complain against common-sense regulations to wear masks or shutdown of religious gatherings. Instead of meeting the suffering of others with compassion, we see increasing and needless hatred and what-about-ism.
As has been increasingly said in the online circles lately, the virus has only brought out the deep flaws and inequities that have existed in our societies for many generations. This crisis has awakened many to the realities of systemic racism, gender inequality, casteism and religious bigotry. The recent crackdown on “high-skilled” immigrants by the Trump administration is an example of “napkin economics”, which is essentially the economic equivalent of pseudoscience. To blame the virus entirely for the difficulties that far too many of us are facing today could perhaps be the biggest mistake we can make.
Hope in the face of difficulty
“Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”
In a speech that the then US Senator from Illinois, the little-known Barack Obama, delivered in 2004, he makes a powerful case for hope in the face of seemingly impossible odds. In fact, that was a precursor to his political philosophy of hope and collective activism, which went on to become a theme of his Presidency. Irrespective of any disagreements that any of us might have with his policies and ideas, that brand of hope and optimism is what we need right now. The opposite of hope is cynicism, and us becoming cynical only benefits those that are already trying to (and succeeding in) exploiting the rest of us. Blind optimism and willful ignorance do little more than help us get through a day or a week. The kind of hope that we need today is a belief that we can turn things around; a belief that by working together rather than against each other, we can build a world that works for all of us and not just some.
In his popular book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell opens the eyes of the reader to a hard reality: while individual initiative is necessary for success, it is far from sufficient. The existence of opportunity is an essential ingredient that is acknowledged far too little in our cultures. The popular belief that successful people are truly self-made is a myth, and it is high time we recognize it. In order to build a truly just and prosperous society, a fundamental requirement is to make opportunity available to all and not just some. Among other things, this means that we must reject the notion that communities that are unable to succeed are doing so by choice. Talking about and rooting out long-held prejudices should be an essential part of moving forward. Acknowledging the systemic flaws in our institutions is a first step in opening the door for policies and measures that are no longer blind to the historical injustices faced by far too many of us.
The younger generation of today is one that is fighting hard to make this planet a better place. That alone, however, will not be enough; ideas alone do not bring about change. The hope that we must hold onto must be defined not only by our values and beliefs but also by sensible and rigorous solutions to the greatest challenges of our time. The good news is that the scientific method can show us the way forward. Open and inclusive discussions, critical thinking, an insistence on facts and a sense of humility that we may not have all the answers right away are all concepts that are useful well beyond the purposes of scientific research in the lab. In order to come up with long-lasting solutions to the deepest of our problems, we must learn to trust our experts: scientists, doctors, economists and social scientists among many others. From curing diseases once thought incurable to powering every individual with unprecedented access to information, from economic policy that has lifted millions out of poverty to the long-overdue work on the true nature of biological sex and gender, the scientific method has fundamentally impacted our lives in innumerable ways over the past few decades. Our public discourse moving forward must therefore reflect not only an inclusive and tolerant spirit but also a temperament for facts, logic and science. It is the only way to break out of a correlation — a vicious cycle — that plagues us today.
We must build a collective habit of learning about difficulties faced by not just the community that we are born into but also ones that our friends and colleagues are born into. Viewing people through the lens of stereotypes is a natural instinct for all of us to one extent or another, but we must recognize that these stereotypes reinforce a distorted vision of many communities that only benefit some. We must therefore bring ourselves outside of our comfort zones and make a conscious effort to cultivate empathy. While doing so, almost paradoxically, it is easy to fall into the trap of making it into yet another version of “us vs them”. This is best exemplified in today’s “cancel culture”, where one sign of imperfection on the part of an individual often leads to “Twitter justice” and occasionally even getting fired from work or ostracized socially. As we work towards healing our divisions, it is imperative that we do so with a measure of humility and with a sense of understanding that no one is or has ever been perfect. Instead of “canceling” people out because their Twitter post from 10 years ago disagrees with our ideas, we must leave space for people to change their opinions when presented with facts and logic. Self correction, in fact, is the fundamental tenet of the scientific method. For as long as we do not lose sight of the complexity of our world, for as long as we are rooted in empathy and rationality, and for as long as we strive to uphold free speech and tolerance, we have reason to be hopeful.
For the physicist in me, the prospect of space travel and exploration of our universe is incredibly exciting. But for the human in me, that prospect is only meaningful when all of us can take part in it. And in making that happen, we all have a role to play.
This story was originally published by the author on Medium.